Chinese government arrests hackers on US request

The Chinese government has quietly arrested several hackers at the request of the U.S. government, in an unprecedented move reported by The Washington Post.

The arrests came a week or two before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tense state visit last month, sources told the Post.

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The hackers were part of a list drawn up by administration officials that identified cyber thieves who stole trade secrets from U.S. firms to pass along to Chinese competitors.

“We need to know that you’re serious,” one U.S. official close to the situation described the message. “So we gave them a list, and we said, ‘Look, here’s these guys. Round them up.’”

Officials are now waiting to see whether the Chinese government will go forward with prosecutions, or whether the arrests will be nothing more than an empty gesture intended to diffuse tensions with the United States in advance of the state visit.

In the weeks leading up to the visit, the White House faced vociferous pressure from lawmakers to sanction Chinese companies suspected of commercial espionage. Meanwhile, Xi repeatedly rejected the allegations that Beijing was involved in hacking.

Officials are divided over whether the arrests mark a shift in the Chinese approach to cybersecurity policy.

“You’d want to see it sustained over time,” one official told the Post. “And in a situation when there wasn’t a major state visit coming up. That will be the proof that the cooperation really is improving.”

The U.S. and China reached an agreement on commercial hacking during the visit in which the two sides promised that they would not would conduct or support the online theft of intellectual property.

But the Obama administration was clear that “actions speak louder than words.”  

“What I’ve said to President Xi and what I say to the American people, the question now is: Are words followed by actions?” President Obama said. “We will be watching carefully to make an assessment as to whether progress has been made in this area.”

Three days after the visit, the FBI sent an alert to some U.S. firms warning that China-based hackers “have compromised and stolen sensitive military information” from companies that provide engineering and technical services to several branches of the military, The Daily Beast reported this week.

Sources say the alert did not describe the kind of hacking that the agreement forbids.

The U.S. has not laid aside the possibility of sanctions, but policy experts say the administration will likely wait to see if the Chinese government holds up its end of the bargain.

“Particularly now that we have reached this agreement with the Chinese, we should hold them at their word and see what they’re willing to do,” the administration official said. “We have maintained all along that what we want to see is actions.”